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Racism 101 Asked And Answered: Why And When Is It Offensive For Non-Black Women To Wear Black Hairstyles?

A guest gets her hair done at the BETX House of Fashion and Beauty at the 2018 BET Experience Fan Fest at Los Angeles Convention Center in 2018.
(Alison Buck/Getty Images for BET
Getty Images North America)
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We've solicited questions from our audience — awkward, tough-to-ask, even silly questions — that they've perhaps wanted to ask people unlike themselves, but have been too shy, embarrassed or afraid to ask.

What Is Racism 101?
  • We created Racism 101 to help our audience facilitate their own thought-provoking talks around race, with a conversation "starter kit," and extensive anti-racism resource guides to inform and educate. To field these questions, we assembled a panel of Angelenos willing to answer so folks didn't have to ask their friends, or even strangers.

We received a question about a topic that comes up frequently when we talk about appropriation of Black culture: hair.

Q: "Would it be considered racist for a non-Black mother to put her child's hair in braids or cornrows?"

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For decades, celebrities have been called out for appropriating Black hairstyles.

In the 1979 movie, "10," Bo Derek, ran down a beach with her hair braided in cornrows. Through this scene, she solidified herself as a pop culture icon of appropriation, specifically of Black hairstyles. She may be one of the first contemporary examples of celebrities’ appropriation of Black hairstyles, but she certainly wasn't the last.

Clueless Celebrities

More recently, Justin Beiber debuted his new locs in an April Instagram post. Three days later, Beiber was harshly criticized in a Guardian article for cultural tone-deafness. The common name for locs, “dreadlocks,” said two Black hair professionals, has racist origins.

There’s been a slate of incidents with the Kardashian clan over the years, including Khloe Kardashianwearing Fulani braids, a traditional hairstyle of a West African ethnic group. "White girls love black girl magic," an Instagram user commented on her look. Kardashian also posted a picture of herself on Instagram wearing Bantu knots, which originated centuries ago among Southern African tribes.

Kim Kardashian came under fire for branding cornrows as “KKW Signature Braids,” and “Boxer Braids.”

The Kardashians were also called out for their hair gaffes. In a video statement, actress/singer Amandla Stenberg said:

“When you appropriate Black features and culture but fail to use your position of power to help Black Americans by directing attention towards your wigs instead of police brutality or racism.”

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Policing Black Hair

In June 2019, Janae Williams became the 100th storyteller to participate in KPCC’s Unheard LA series. She shared how a day to treat herself became a frustrating experience to get a hairdo in her piece, "UnHaired LA."

Just weeks after her performance, California became the first state to pass the CROWN Act, which stands for "Creating a Respectful World for Natural Hair." The law prohibits race-based hair discrimination — denial of educational or job opportunities — because of the choice to wear hair naturally or in braids, locs, twists or bantu knots.

Williams was invited back to participate in the Unheard LA: A Deeper Listen series in July 2020. We talked about her experience with discrimination and ignorance just trying to get her hair done in the context of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement. The conversation with Williams and other participants was telling.

Black women’s hair has been policed for years — in the workplace, in the military, in school. We needed a law passed to let us express ourselves as we want to.

So, what’s the “rule” when it comes to white people wanting to wear traditionally Black hairstyles? Can they do it without appropriating the culture or being offensive?

How Our Racism 101 Panelist Responded

Q: "Would it be considered racist for a non-Black mother to put her child's hair in small braids or cornrows?"

Donna, a local artist who proudly identifies as Black and queer, tries to answer this question for a non-Black mother seeking advice on styling her daughter’s hair. She recounts her own complicated relationship with her natural hair, as a girl and a woman, to try to help give context to the complex issue of appreciation versus appropriation.

"Is your child African American? Mixed race? Part of a transracial adoption or fostering? If so, then yes, please! It would be tragic not to put her hair in plaits or cornrows. Frequent manipulation of Black hair causes breakage because it’s fragile.

"If your child is not African American, then ask yourself, “Would I wear this hairstyle to work?” And, “If I wore this hairstyle to work, would I be ostracized? Dismissed? Judged? Would there be a conversation with a boss or supervisor?” And, if the answer is yes, I’m going to call your bluff.

"Black children have to be taught to love their hair and skin the way it is in a way that non-BIPOC (particularly those with European features) do not. This is especially true for Black girls and women. At 33, I still have to erase rogue disdain about my hair. I still have burn marks on my ears from pressing combs. And often, my long straight wig just feels more like, “me” — whoever she is.

"For me, rejection started as a young girl in predominantly white schools. I was aware that my ponytail and my friends’ ponytail didn’t look the same. Unlike my friends, I couldn’t mindlessly braid my hair at lunchtime. Once, while swimming at a friend's house, I realized that the gel that I used to slick my hair down enough to braid had left huge glops in the pool that looked like oil splotches. No one wanted to get back in.

"Today, Black girls are suspended from school for wearing their natural hair. Companies have long lists of prohibited hairstyles; plaits and cornrows are usually among them. (California has the CROWN Act, but, as of January, there was no parallel legislation in at least 15 states.) But before “the world” tells us there is a problem with our hair, we tell ourselves. We believe the lie. Aunties, grandmas, people at church, boys and girls alike will say, “What in the world is wrong with your hair?” or “You’re going out of the house looking all crazy?” because I decided to wear it as it grows out of my head … or because I have the same puff (ponytail) today that I wore yesterday.

"The relationship is one of pain and one of great joy, pride, love, power and history. It’s an insular experience that an affinity group shares, the care of it is imbued with love and ritual. No matter where you’re from or grew up, I feel confident in saying that every Black woman knows that the best place to get your hair braided is between someone’s knees.

"Because it’s love that we have birthed from pain … it’s ours.

"So, no, it’s not racist. It’s problematic or a bit offensive at most. But I’m assuming that you’re asking because you care, and respect the history and heritage.

"There are many online resources that can help you, and there are many hair stylists who will teach you. Please educate yourself on the history of Black hair and find ways to genuinely affirm the beauty of your child’s natural hair."

And for more context, check out Chris Rock's 2009 documentary, "Good Hair."